Sunday, July 25, 2021

The pattern of miracles

When Jesus lived among us, many miracles were credited to him: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring the paralyzed, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, even raising the dead. There are other kinds of miracles too; still, Jesus' miracles were generally acts of compassion and mercy. His pattern was to use his power to show his love for the world, especially for the suffering. And so certain other miracles seem off-pattern: entering through a locked door after his resurrection, or walking on water. 

And so I was interested when I heard my pastor's thoughts about this morning's reading, when Jesus walked on the water to his disciples crossing the lake in their boat at night. I have often heard that text preached with reference to fixing our eyes on Jesus amid the storms of life. I have heard it preached as Peter getting out of the boat, considering whether we have the faith to take that first step. I believe this is the first time I have heard it mentioned that Jesus did not ask Peter to get out of the boat, did not expect Peter to come to him: that the point of this miracle was so that Jesus could be with them. Jesus could have just as easily met them on the other side of the lake, as the disciples may have expected. His presence was for their safety and comfort. He did not meet the boat in the middle of the lake because he needed help getting to the other side; he met them because they needed him. 

I can see Jesus' miracle of entering through a locked door in the same light: it is a minor miracle where the power is small; the compassion is the vital part. The disciples were in hiding, in fear for their lives against the same corrupt and godless establishment that had ordered Jesus' death. And in Jesus walks as the proof that their lives are not so disposable as all that, that earthly powers are not so final as all that, that God is greater. As he said when he met them, "Peace be with you." It's the pattern of the miracles. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The dividing wall of hostility: Some things never change

It was many centuries ago now that St Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, in a passage which liturgical churches re-read in services today: 

For he (Christ Jesus) is our peace, who has made both (competing groups among his readers) one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances ... (Ephesians 2:14-15)

What some translators term "the middle wall of partition" and "enmity", other translators have rendered "the dividing wall of hostility." The hostility was over who was right -- who was better -- and whether keeping ordinances could show who was good and not.

Paul's readers seem to have contained two sides of a debate: people who thought they were better than others because they kept certain purity laws, and people who thought they were better than others because they did not rely on purity laws. Given human nature, there were probably also those who were not that interested in the debate, and others who were not yet convinced by either side, but fixated on finding the one right answer in that debate. At any rate, it appears that all the air in the room was being used up on the debate.

The debates have changed. But one thing has not: when debates cause hostility, the debate itself becomes part of the problem. To be sure, a debate is more what the ancients might have called an "occasion" for hostility -- a setting in which sin flourishes. It really is up to us whether we descend into hostility. The fertile ground there is not merely the debate, but the idea that the debate falls into such a simple situation that people on one side are good people, while people on the other side are bad people. After all, St Paul devotes several chapters at times to explaining that the question of keeping the purity codes is not as simple as some would make it seem: that there is value in the law, and value in freedom, and possibly more value still in humility and recognizing that we are not all alike except in our humanity. God, grant me humility. 

Another thing remains the same: to get beyond our arguments, it requires perspective that God is greater still.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Gospel of Judas: Why Barbelo and Yaldabaoth are relevant to that conversation

End note, moved to the top: My apologies if some of the material in this post is not within the bounds of traditional Christian or Jewish belief. It comes with the territory of reading and commenting on the Gospel of Judas. Yet if we're going to assess that document at all, then we go into that territory.

Anyone reading the Gospel of Judas will come across the names of spiritual beings such as Barbelo and Yaldabaoth, along with a cosmic origin story involving emanations / generations and aeons. These unfamiliar names are flags that the Gospel of Judas comes from a certain Gnostic sub-group called Sethians. Without claiming any familiarity with Sethians myself, I'll pass along that some encyclopedia references suggest that the Sethians were a fusion of diaspora Hellenistic Judaism and some Greek beliefs. This fusion could have been early enough to predate Christianity, though the available sources so far suggest that without confidence, as the early range of possible origin dates for the Sethian movement. At any rate, it would mean the Sethians could have been an existing group in the Jewish diaspora at the time the evangelists brought the news of Jesus to the Jews scattered around the Roman empire.

On the consideration that the Sethians may have already been in the Jewish diaspora when the evangelists began to proclaim Jesus, I'd expect that the Sethians were less-than-mainstream in the Jewish community. More than one line of reasoning suggests it. We're familiar with several Jewish sects from the Jewish homeland from that era such as Pharisees and Sadducees -- not so much the Sethians. Also, some of the key figures in their cosmology such as Barbelo are never named in the Jewish cosmology of Genesis, never mentioned in Jewish Scriptures, never discussed in the conversations about Jewish controversies that are recorded in the New Testament. If we were to make a Venn diagram of mainstream Second Temple Judaism and its belief systems, several of the Sethian tenets about God / divinity seem to lie squarely outside the area shared by Pharisees and Sadducees, though with enough overlap to see that the Sethians owe some of their views to Judaism (or possibly: try to incorporate their Jewish ideas of origins into their Sethian views). 

The Sethian origin story (per the encyclopedia articles I've reviewed) has a sympathetic view of the serpent of Genesis and its role in humans' gain of knowledge, and possibly in humans' freedom from lesser religious systems. It is not a far reach to see a parallel with the Sethian Gospel of Judas and its sympathetic view of the betrayer's place in redemption. If the Sethians are as much about that alternative origin as the encyclopedia articles suggest, then the Gospel of Judas is a nearly-obvious interpretation of Jesus' betrayal from the Sethian point of view.

Why does this matter for us in our modern day? That depends on each person's interest in assessing the older texts that are presented as alternative gospels. I have mentioned before that I see some of these "alternative gospels" as coming from a stage in which the first Jewish-Christian evangelists met other cultures. While the New Testament shows us the Jewish disciples grappling with the Gentiles' non-Jewishness, it looks to me as though we see the opposite happening in some of the alternative gospels. We see non-Jewish cultures grapple with Jesus' Jewishness, or re-interpret Jesus within their own cultural and philosophical references. 

Because I have not at this point made any study of Sethians for their own sake, my knowledge of them is limited. Their worldview in the Gospel of Judas -- with layers of different generations/emanations and their respective divine beings -- comes across to this novice as complicated, tedious, and contrived. My underlying interest is where this puzzle piece fits into the classical world's understanding of Jesus. With its reliance on figures such as Barbelo and Yaldabaoth, the puzzle piece fits outside of the area that is bounded by Jewish Scriptures or grounded in Jewish Scriptures, edging into the esoteric beliefs of some sects in the diaspora.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Faith: A virtue that moves us

The gospel readings in church these last two weeks have made a serious contrast: Last week's reading told about Jairus' daughter and the unnamed woman who touched Jesus' cloak; this week's reading told about the unbelief of the people in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth. 

"Your faith has made you well." -- I've often privately in my heart found fault with that line of thinking: It was the power and benevolence of God that made her well! But Jairus benefited from it because he acted on his belief in it. The unnamed woman who touched his cloak benefited from it because she acted on her belief in it. Few in Nazareth did the same. So there is a real sense in which faith was a vital factor. It is true enough that God is not limited by our own thoughts; however, my relationship with God may be limited by my thoughts about God. 

The last few years I have been more like the hometown crowd in Nazareth. (Has the church become like the hometown crowd in Nazareth -- too accustomed to Jesus to see what is happening?) I find myself wondering about the line between the temptation of cynicism and whether it verges on maligning God's character. 

May I see Jesus again through the eyes of those who are not over-familiar.